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New Federal Medical Privacy Rules Will Make Journalists’ Job Harder
Society of Professional Journalists FOI Alert
Vol. 7; No. 7
Ian Marquand, SPJ Freedom of Information Committee co-chairman, firstname.lastname@example.org or 406/542-4449
Journalists who cover accidents and other incidents in which people require medical care will have a harder time determining the number and nature of injuries, or even if someone has been admitted to a hospital, because of new federal rules on the privacy of health-care information.
Specific information on patient injuries, illnesses and conditions may no longer be available. In fact, the new rules will make it harder merely to confirm that a person is in the hospital.
The Bush administration recently released the latest version of medical privacy rules, which are intended to give people more control over their health and medical information. In most cases, the rules will take effect April 14, 2003.
Medical privacy rules were required by the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA). The Clinton administration issued an initial version in 2000. The Bush administration chose to re-visit the rules in 2001 following complaints from various lobbying interests. During both rounds of rulemakings, the Society of Professional Journalists, other journalism organizations and other groups interested in freedom of information submitted comments.
In most situations, the new rules prohibit hospitals and other health providers from releasing information on patients without prior permission. The rules also have severe penalties for unauthorized releases.
The rules allow some information called “limited data sets” (patients’ birth dates, admission and discharge dates, and geographic addresses larger than street addresses) to be given to research and public health entities, but specifically not to journalists.
So, journalists now may have a hard time merely confirming that someone is in a hospital. The new rules allow a health facility to confirm that an individual is in the hospital, and get information on the person’s general condition, by checking its patient directory, but the journalist must have the name -- something that may be difficult in a breaking public health emergency or other crisis.
Even that may not be enough, however, since the rules also allow patients to keep their names off the publicly available directory.
Says Amy Henson of SPJ’s First Amendment law firm, Baker & Hostetler, “We wish we could report otherwise, but it appears that the new rules will make the job of journalists in reporting important public-health information much more difficult.”
SPJ President Al Cross, who began his journalism career reporting hospital admissions and other news for his hometown radio station in Southern Kentucky, called the new rules outrageous. “This will have a broad impact on day-to-day journalism in this country, and I hope journalists will point out to their elected representatives the problems that this will cause for news outlets large and small,” said Cross, political writer and columnist for The (Louisville) Courier-Journal.